“I thought you said if we destroyed the brain, it’d die!” says Burt Wilson. Frank replies, “It worked in the movie!” Burt responds, “Well, it ain’t working now, Frank!” Frank asks, “You mean the movie lied?”
Dan O’Bannon’s biggest contribution to cinema would be the ideas he had that eventually led to Ridley Scott’s 1979 landmark sci-fi classic Alien (some of those ideas had grown out of ones he used in John Carpenter’s 1974 feature debut Dark Star and ones that went unused in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade film version of Frank Herbert’s Dune). O’Bannon’s second biggest contribution to cinema would be his 1985 directorial debut The Return of the Living Dead, which, along with George Romero’s Day of the Dead and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator that same year, marked a revival of the zombie genre in the 1980s (all three films are now celebrating their 30th anniversary). I missed out on the chance to see the film at Film Forum two years ago (it had quickly sold out because James Karen, one of the stars from the film, was introducing the film), but I did manage to catch a midnight showing of it over a year-and-a-half ago at the IFC Center in an old 35mm film print (a print so old that some of the frames melted about 15 minutes in, causing the projector to stop and a projectionist had to go splice the film in order to resume playing it).
1985’s The Return of the Living Dead follows a couple of medical supply warehouse workers and a group of teenage punks as they deal with a zombie epidemic in their town after the accidental release of a toxic gas. O’Bannon gathered together an eclectic cast for his film: James Karen (as Frank), Clu Gulager (as Burt Wilson), Don Calfa (as Ernie Kaltenbrunner), Thom Mathews (as Freddy), Beverly Randolph (as Tina), John Philbin (as Chuck), Jewel Shepard (as Casey), Miguel A. Nunez Jr. (as Spider), Brian Peck (as Scuz), Linnea Quigley (as Trash), Mark Venturini (as Suicide), Jonathan Terry (as Colonel Glover), and Allan Trautman (as Tarman). Karen is phenomenal; he’s both funny and dramatic without going over-the-top. The younger cast members fare well and are a hoot to watch (Quigley is the most memorable of the young group due to her infamous graveyard striptease, one of many terrific sequences in the film).
O’Bannon’s screenplay injected a lot of slapstick and morbid humor into the zombie movie formula (a lot of characters also have eccentric dialogue); this was intended to differentiate his film from Romero’s zombie films. One of the characters even references Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (the toxic gas came from a military drum related to a military experiment gone wrong that ended up serving as the inspiration for Romero’s original film). It is also O’Bannon’s screenplay that introduced the now-popular concept of zombies’ hunger for brains rather than just flesh (another departure from Romero’s films). Jules Brenner’s cinematography supports the dark tone of the film (the evening scenes are gorgeous; the graveyard scenes are my favorite examples and not just because of Linnea Quigley’s striptease). William Stout’s production design succeeds in creating claustrophobic environments in expansive spaces (roaming zombies do make it quite difficult to find a good hiding spot).
O’Bannon’s strong direction draws entertaining performances from his cast and stages incredible action sequences involving zombies. The special effects are quite gruesome and the makeup design by William Munns is very effective (there’s a wide variety of zombie makeups that are well-done). The Tarman zombie is an impressive achievement (a combination of acting, puppetry, and practical effects). Robert Gordon’s editing moves the film at a quick (but not too quick) pace. The film boasts a killer soundtrack with some pretty cool punk rock ’80s songs that work well with Matt Clifford’s score. O’Bannon’s hilariously gory contribution to the zombie horror subgenre has left a lasting impact on pop culture for the last 30 years. Forget the terrible sequels and stick with the original Return of the Living Dead. It’ll make you scream for “more brains!”